Tips for Teaching Teenagers
For years it was the assumption that children were born with a certain number of neurons and how these were arranged predetermined an individual’s fate. The statement, ‘Give me a child for the first seven years and I will give you back the adult!’ is commonly attributed to Mark Twain but it is a cliché that can be traced back to Aristotle and used by St. Ignatius Loyloa to underpin the Jesuit Order’s emphasis on educating the youth. This is faulty belief Number 1. Of course, the early years are critical in the development of a child’s sense of self and their subsequent approach to life but this is not decisive.
The second inadequate truth is that early intervention is the only effective time to attempt to modify dysfunctional behaviours; if you miss this time it is too late. Of course, it is much easier to change behaviours before they become entrenched in a child’s repertoire but this is not the only time this can be achieved. When I started working with dysfunctional teenagers I experienced unintentional reluctance to support my work. My supervisors looked at my school as somewhere to park these dangerous kids while they placed their meagre resources on working in early childhood.
To be clear, I agree early intervention is very much the preferred option when helping those kids who struggle to control their behaviour. All our work is about supporting such endeavors but I refuse to give-up on any child or any adult just because they missed out during this time. The conduct disordered and oppositional students, I was charged to look after deserved every chance to change the way they behaved and take their rightful place in our society.
In 2007, Deborah Yurgelun-Todd published a paper, ‘Emotional and cognitive changes during adolescence’ which demonstrated that the onset of puberty marked a significant stage in the development of the brain. At about age eleven there is a surge of growth in the Brain’s ‘grey matter’ and a significant increase in the presence of myelin in the prefrontal lobes; these are the conditions for development of new areas of cognition and therefore new ways to control behaviour.
This is the period where the prefrontal lobes begin to mature eventually allowing us to consider decisions through the use of our finely matured working memory. During this transition from behaviours regulated by our concrete thoughts or raw emotions to more measured decision making there is a period of adjustment. This is particularly marked around the interpretation and expression of emotions.
Up until about age eleven the interpretation of the emotional state of an individual is carried out in the amygdala and this informs the individual’s response to this non-verbal message. Eventually, the emotional message from the environment goes through the prefrontal lobes for evaluation and, unless the situation is extremely stressful the decision on how to react is more controlled. Of course, when any situation is potentially threatening to our survival the amygdala provides instant response.
During this time of change the child will become less capable of identifying how others are feeling as emotional interpretation function shifts from amygdala to frontal lobes. A ten-year-old child can more accurately identify the emotions of others at a high level than an eleven-year-old. The drop-in accuracy is considered to be in the order of 20%. This frustrates both parents and teachers who, when expressing their great displeasure are confronted with an adolescent who ‘just doesn’t seem to care’.
Another form of annoyance for the adult is that having given clear instructions about what to do, and receiving a message that their teenager understands the directions and is willing to comply, when they come to inspect the ‘finished task’ nothing has been done and the teenager doesn’t understand why you’re upset; more frustration!
However, this is the developmental period of the prefrontal lobe which, in times of tolerable levels of stress:
• Controls how we are interacting with our environment
• Manages how we make judgments about what occurs in our daily activities
• Directs our emotional response
• Organises our expressive language. Assigns meaning to the words we choose
• Involves word associations
• Controls memory for habits and motor activities
This is our working memory in action.
The following is advice for teaching all adolescent students and is the same for those who we focus on, those with dysfunctional behaviours resulting from childhood abuse and/or neglect. The environment you provide must be consistent, persistent and supportive as always but a bit more patience is needed through these years. On top of this, the following suggestions will help:
1. Don’t let the challenges of puberty lower your expectations. Just because your children may become moody or resistant doesn’t mean you should let them pull back on their efforts in their activities or their schoolwork. Continue your encouragement and involvement, you can still be appropriately angry when they fail to ‘do their homework’. It’s all about finding the right fit.
2. You have to gradually pass the control of the environment from you to them. One of the hardest things to do is to hand over the responsibility from it being your duty to having them fulfil their obligations to it being their responsibility. I understand how hard it is to let go and watch them make choices that we might not necessarily make; to watch them make mistakes. But, without going through the process of learning to be self-responsible they will never take their rightful place in our community.
3. Organise reasonable routines for your students. Allow time for the very demanding academic work or schoolwork but make sure you give them plenty of time for other, more social activities. The amount of time put aside for school work will increase throughout their time at secondary school but the growth should synchronize with the maturity of the prefrontal lobe.
4. Don’t be surprised if your students focus more on socialising during this time. This is customary and important but friendships aren’t the only significant aspects of their lives and should not displace their other important activities and responsibilities. Be vigilant around their use of social media, this can become a substitute for students who struggle with face-to-face relationships. It’s best to limit the use of these activities.
5. Expect students to grow and change. Encourage them to seek out new activities to replace ones they outgrow. Some young teenagers stick with the same activities that they’ve done since they were young children; others go through radical changes; both are normal.
6. Accept, in the senior years you may have to take more of a back seat in the driving of their education. But, back seat drivers can be effective in making sure the course they are on is steady and safe! Teenagers are still hearing what you say even when they seem not to be listening.
I have included, in the resources section of our site a chapter form my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ – Chapter 8 - The Second Chance: The Teenage Brain, that gives a much more detailed explanation of this stage of their brain’s development. It is just as the chapter says, a second chance and I have argued that dealing with those damaged adolescents at the time of puberty is a powerful form of early intervention.